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Unveiling Command Substitution in Linux

Command substitution is a powerful feature in Linux shells, particularly in the Bourne Again SHell (BASH), but also in others like ZSH and KSH. This feature enables you to execute a shell command and substitute its output in place of the command itself. This is highly useful for capturing the output of commands within shell variables or in scripts, among other applications. This article aims to offer an in-depth understanding of what command substitution is, how it works, and how you can utilize it.

What Is Command Substitution?

In the Linux shell, command substitution runs a command and replaces the command substitution expression with the standard output of the command, stripping any trailing newlines. This means you can store the output of a command in a variable, or use it as an argument to another command, among other possibilities.


Command substitution is generally invoked using one of the following syntaxes:

  1. $(command) - This is the modern and POSIX-compliant method.
  2. `command` - This is the older, backtick method.

How Does Command Substitution Work?

Command substitution goes through a few phases before and after execution:

  1. Command Parsing: The shell identifies the $(command) or `command` syntax in the line and prepares to execute it.
  2. Command Execution: The command within the parentheses or backticks is executed.
  3. Output Capture: The standard output of the command is captured.
  4. Substitution: The entire $(command) or `command` expression is replaced by the output.
  5. Command Execution: The final command, after substitution, is executed.

Examples of Command Substitution

Example 1: Basic Use-Case

You can use command substitution to store the output of a command in a variable.

files_count=$(ls | wc -l)
echo "There are $files_count files in the current directory."

Example 2: Inline Use

Command substitution can also be used inline, as part of another command:

echo "Today's date is $(date)."

Example 3: Nested Command Substitution

Command substitutions can be nested, meaning you can include one command substitution within another:

echo "There are $(ls $(pwd) | wc -l) files in the current directory."

Example 4: Using Command Substitution with Arithmetic Expansion

You can combine command substitution with arithmetic expansion for tasks like calculating values:

result=$(( $(date +%d) + 5))
echo "Five days from today will be the $result"

Points to Consider

  • Make sure that the command inside the substitution does not produce an error; otherwise, it can affect the rest of the command.
  • The older backtick syntax `command` is generally considered less readable, especially for nested command substitution, so it's advised to use the $(command) syntax for better readability and maintainability.


Command substitution is a potent feature in Linux, allowing for dynamic command and script creation. By understanding and utilizing this feature effectively, you can create more flexible and powerful shell scripts and commands. It's an essential skill for anyone who wishes to master shell scripting or become more proficient in Linux system administration.

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